Amber Charter School and PS137 Link Up

Running a school is tough business in New York City. It’s that much harder when you take on the challenge of turning around a failing school.

Vasthi Acosta found herself in just such a position when she became the Principal of Amber Charter School in 2008.

Luckily, Acosta was not alone. Amber Charter School, located on 106th Street in Manhattan, was one of nearly 20 schools in the Maverick Educational Partnership, one of New York City’s 59 Children First Networks (CFNs). As part of NYC’s efforts to give principals more autonomy and choice, schools self-affiliate to a CFN based on common priorities (instructional approach, student demographics, etc). CFNs, in turn, provide the schools in its network information, consultation, professional development, and empowerment in order to ensure overall student achievement. Networks are intended to create opportunities for schools to work together, share best practices and cultivate new ideas. And they’re also there to give practical advice when a school is falling short.

So, Ms. Acosta picked up the phone.

“My first year as head of school at Amber, our test scores were horrific,” recalls Acosta. “We got an ‘F’ on the Department of Education’s progress report. I was new to the whole thing; it was quite devastating.”

Her call was heeded by Debra Lamb, Maverick’s Deputy Network Leader of six years. Lamb connected Acosta to a district school Principal named Sherry Font-Williams, who experienced the exact same predicament years before at PS137 in the Bronx.

Font-Williams had been through the ringer of press, parents and everything else that came with a failing grade from the DOE; and she was happy to offer counsel to a fellow Maverick member.

“Here was a principal who didn’t know me from a hole in the wall,” says Acosta. “But because I was a part of her network, she was so receptive. It was helpful and it gave me hope — she was able to survive it, and I could survive it too.”

Acosta did more than survive though, with help from her network partner she was able to dramatically improve her school’s outcomes. Within the year, Amber Charter School’s scores jumped 79 points from F to an A.

This relationship is notable because Amber is the Maverick network’s sole charter school member. Amber has been building relationships and collaborating with district schools in the network since Maverick started.

According to Lamb, Maverick Educational Partnership strives to fill a ‘connector’ role by building bridges between schools in their network. Since 2006, Maverick has been facilitating educator study groups, school visits, conferences and joint grant opportunities among its network schools. Lamb explained that Maverick is committed to identifying strengths and successes and sharing them across schools.

“Our goal is to establish a community; to create a structure and relationships across schools and across boroughs, that will support these schools in the long term,” says Lamb, who’s been working to build these relationships since Maverick’s first year. “We want to instill in schools the idea that ‘if one of us fails, all of us fails.’”

Acosta, for one, is grateful for the ongoing collaborations which have included everything from getting advice on working with unions to sharing grant funding.

“We don’t have to be on opposite sides of the road,” says Acosta. “We’re all working for the same thing. I’ve found that educators in the DOE and at charter schools can be equally passionate about their work and their students’ success.”

As of March 2012, more than 1,500 schools in the five boroughs are members of one of NYC’s Children First Networks such as Maverick.

The Maverick network is about more than connecting schools in dire need; since 2006, the network has provided development opportunities, best practices and counsel for innovation to schools across the city. They organize school study groups, school visits, conferences, and grant opportunities. Above all, they strive to fill a ‘connector’ role by building bridges between schools in their network.

Lamb believes that every school has its own strengths. The network is about sharing those strengths to find out if or how they could to applied to other schools for improvement.

“Our motto is ‘you can’t always play by the rules. You have to change the game,’” says Lamb. “We’re constantly looking for new rules and for things that are working now, that weren’t before.”

Lamb recognizes that Maverick’s phones may not always be there for calls like Acosta’s in the future; in which case, she’s anticipating leaders from schools like Amber will be confident in connecting to other schools like PS137, themselves.